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Tigers on cusp of ALCS

Tigers on cusp of ALCS

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DETROIT -- The appearance of Game 4 of this American League Division Series will come as a shock to the large number of folks who believed that this series was only going three games.

That brings up the second shock suffered by conventional wisdom in this event. The Detroit Tigers, far, far, far from being swept by the New York Yankees, have a 2-1 series lead. They can take this thing, on their home ground of Comerica Park, on Saturday.

What happened? The central fact of the last two games, both Tigers victories, was that Detroit pitching trumped New York hitting. Friday night, in a 6-0 Detroit victory, former postseason punching bag Kenny Rogers turned into an October ace, turning in a pitching performance for the ages against the imposing Yankees lineup.

Combine Rogers' brilliant effort with the highly effective work of the Detroit bullpen in Game 2, and the Yankees have not scored in 14 consecutive innings.

When that fact was brought up to Tigers manager Jim Leyland after Friday night's victory, he chuckled and asked: "Why did you have to bring that up?"

The answer for how it could happen, in Leyland's analysis, was a combination of good pitching and the Yankees getting away from their standard patient, painstaking approach. Leyland can reasonably hope for continued good pitching, but he does not expect the Yankees to keep straying from their usual game plan.

"Obviously, we made some good pitches," Leyland said. "The Yankees, in my opinion, are the most patient hitting team in baseball. And it's also one of the reasons they are the best hitting team.

"As the game went on [Friday night] and we added on a couple of runs, it was really the first time that they became a little bit impatient. But I can promise you, that won't happen [Saturday]. It will be a whole new chapter. It was just one of those nights where, you know, maybe toward the end, they got a little frustrated, but that will not happen at the beginning of [Saturday's] game, I can promise you that."

Can the Tigers continue to contain the best offense in baseball? If they can, they will stage a truly memorable postseason pitching display, not to mention a truly memorable postseason upset.

It will be up to Jeremy Bonderman to continue this trend. This is another highly talented young Detroit pitcher coming off another generally successful campaign. But his last performance was not exactly his finest hour. In the final game of the regular season, Bonderman was unable to hold a six-run lead against the Kansas City Royals and the Tigers went on to lose both the game and the AL Central title.

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The rest of the Tigers have been able to shake off their late season failures so thoroughly that they are now on the brink of postseason success. Bonderman gave up only four earned runs in the three starts previous to the Kansas City debacle, so he is not far removed from success. And the last two games present many examples of his teammates rising up from disappointment to seize the moment.

Jaret Wright will be attempting to keep the Yankees' postseason alive. He pitched well enough in September to gain the fourth spot in the playoff rotation.

Wright has some impressive postseason credentials, but some of those credentials are nine years old. He won three games in the 1997 postseason as a rookie phenom for the Cleveland Indians.

He pitched well in relief for the Atlanta Braves in the 2003 postseason, but over nine other postseason appearances apart from those two years, he is 0-5 over six appearances, including four starts.

But given his recent work, it would not be a stretch to expect him to pitch competently in this start. The variables may be whether the Yankees offense can get back to its explosive self and whether Bonderman can pitch to his considerable potential.

Not many people outside Detroit saw this one coming, but the Yankees in Game 4 will be at the doorstep of postseason defeat, against a team many thought would barely be able to compete with them. But many missed the potential of superior pitching to stop even the game's best offense.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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